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An introduction to the introduction to Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space.

In Space on January 15, 2013 at 11:29 am

Introduction by Mark Rainey

The ‘Plan of the Present Work’ or introduction to Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space  is a dense drift across a series of themes, disciplines, topics and targets: from mathematics to linguistics, from Plato to Chomsky, from Surrealism to urban planning.  It reflects the manner in which Lefebvre himself, we can imagine, drifted around his office dictating the work to his secretary.  This is not just meant to be a flippant comment, but gives some insight into how the text itself was produced.  It was spoken in immediacy, filtered only by the typist, rather than the perhaps more reflected act of Lefebvre writing the work out himself.  The working out of his theory of space occurred alongside the material work carried out by his staff.  This wandering style, dense but loose, gives some account for Lefebvre’s sweeping build up to his own theory of space.

“To speak of ‘producing space’ sounds bizarre”, Lefebvre states, “so great is the sway still held by the idea that empty space is prior to whatever ends up filling it”.  There is a ring of the enlightenment era debate between Newton and Leibniz in the priority given to empty space.  The former had advocated a mathematically independent absolute space, while the latter argued for a relational space dependent on the connection between objects – and Lefebvre certainly mines the history and “long development of the concept of space” in the opening sections of the text.  Crucially, for Lefebvre, this critical history is an opportunity to identify fundamental problems with how ‘space’ has been approached and allows him to pose his notion of ‘social space’ in response.  The common perception of space as an empty area or container is a symptom of the fragmentation of space in western thought and culture.  This fragmentation, expressed in binary oppositions such as the mental (the intelligible, the mathematical, the space of the philosophers) and the lived (the sensory, the material, the practical), is traced through Descartes, mathematical theory and into contemporary philosophy.  We are “confronted by an indefinite multitude of spaces”: literary, ideological, geographical, economic, commercial, national, psychoanalytic etc.  These separate, distinct, disciplinary spheres serve to reflect the specialist and functional distinctions in material and urban space: spaces of leisure, work, play, transportation, public facilities, etc.  In all of this, space becomes a vague and neutered concept. This is space viewed as a neutral container: “Space that is innocent, as free of traps and secret places”.  Lefebvre is attempting to tear this veil of vagueness and neutrality, to reveal that space is fundamentally political and that this political character of space is hidden by ideology.  Space reflects the social relations of production and the social relations of production reflect space.  They are mutually constitutive, in dialectical relation with one another.  This is the essence of Lefebvre’s maxim: (Social) space is a (social) product.

Production is a key term for Lefebvre, which can be understood in reference to both Hegel and Marx.  While the text is weighted towards Marx, it’s nonetheless worth exploring his use of Hegel – not only in recognition of Lefebvre’s role, along with Alexandre Kojève, in introducing Hegel into French theory, but also because Hegel underpins his understanding of ‘social space’.  In Lefebvre’s words, Hegel is the Place de l’Etoile of the text, at once austere and monumental, but also an important nexus for the convergence and circulation of ideas.  Lefebvre’s incorporation of Hegel is not uncritical and we need to bear this in mind.  In Hegelian fashion, certain aspects are discarded while others are deployed.  Hegel’s notion of space is dismissed as ‘statist’ by Lefebvre, yet Hegelian production is maintained.  In defining Hegelian production Lefebvre writes:

“In Hegelianism, ‘production’ has a cardinal role: first, the (absolute) Idea produces the world; next, nature produces the human being; and the human being in turn, by dint of struggle and labour, produces at one, history, knowledge and self-consciousness – and hence that Mind which reproduces the initial and ultimate Idea”.

‘Production’, as described here, is not given a spatial understanding.  This is rather a broad account of Hegel’s philosophy and ‘production’ is located in the action or type of movement undertaken by the absolute idea in its full, self-conscious realisatiion.  There are hints of a notion of circulation as the idea is then re-produced.  For Lefebvre, the productive movement within Hegel hinges on the term “concrete universal” – a notion that seemingly belongs to philosophy while also extending beyond it.  The “concrete universal” is constituted as a relation between the general, the particular and the singular – or the logical-epistemological, the descriptive and the sensory, respectively.  What is significant is that the interrelation between these three notions, under the “concrete universal”, provides a means to escape the “straightjacket” of dualisms that

Continue reading this introduction: NXRB An Introduction to Lefebvre’s The Production of Space.

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